Australia’s transport minister has said cost was not a factor in the suspension of the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and any decision to renew an underwater effort rests primarily with the Malaysian government.
Darren Chester and his counterparts in Malaysia and China announced the decision to suspend efforts to find the plane in a tripartite announcement on Tuesday afternoon, after the completion of the search of a 120,000 sq km area in the southern Indian Ocean.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau had been searching that area – a remote expanse of ocean west of Perth, with waves sometimes between 15 and 20 metres and depths of up to 6km – for nearly two and a half years.
At a press conference in Melbourne on Wednesday morning, Chester said the ATSB’s mission was at the “cutting edge of science and technology, and tested the limit of human endeavour in a very inhospitable part of the world”.
The decision to suspend the search had not been taken lightly by the governments involved, Chester said, but was consistent with the tripartite resolution in July last year that any extension would depend on “credible new evidence” pointing to the “specific location” of the plane.
In December the ATSB identified the next 25,000 sq km area of “highest probability”, should the search prove unsuccessful.
Chester said he characterised that recommendation as “If you were going to search somewhere else, that would be where you’d look” and reiterated the “credible” and “specific” phrasing of the tripartite agreement.
“No one is coming to me as the minister and saying, ‘We know where MH370 is.’ The information put forward by the experts is that if you were going to extend the search, this is the area you would target next.”
He said he did not rule out a future underwater search effort but that decision would be a matter for “the Malaysian government, primarily”, as Australia had delivered on its commitment to search 120,000 sq km.
Tony Abbott, who was the prime minister when the plane was lost from the radar in Australia’s search and rescue zone on 8 March 2014, tweeted on Tuesday night that he was “disappointed” the search had been called off, “especially if some experts think there are better places to look”.
Abbott’s criticism was echoed by Voice 370, the group representing families of passengers of the plane, who said in a joint statement the ATSB’s determining a next area of highest probability was “a wasted exercise”.
“Expecting to determine the ‘precise location of the aircraft’ before continuing the search was, at best, an erroneous expectation and, at worst, a clever formulation to bury the search … Stopping short at this stage is nothing short of irresponsible and betrays a shocking lack of faith in the data, tools and recommendations of an array of official experts assembled by the authorities themselves.”
Cost had not been a deciding factor in the tripartite decision, Chester insisted. The underwater search had cost $200m, including $60m from the Australian government, and Malaysia had contributed “more than anyone else”.
He said the 120,000 sq km area had been “defined on the limited data available” at the time. “The aircraft is in not that area, quite obviously, but we’ve confidence in the technology. They had very little data to work with and they’ve done an extraordinary job.”
Greg Hood, the ATSB’s chief commissioner, said he was confident the aircraft was not in the area that had been searched and praised the professionalism, dedication and optimism of his team despite challenging conditions. “The suspension of the search after two and a half years will be felt very deeply by us.”
Further analysis of debris and satellite imagery would be carried out by the ATSB and was due to conclude by the end of February 2017. Hood said the ATSB would also continue to support the Malaysian government’s requests for debris analysis.
Chester is to meet the crew of the Fugro Equator, the last search vessel to depart the search area, when it arrives in Perth next Monday. He said Australian authorities remained open to further analysis and evidence.
“We need to prepare ourselves for the eventuality that for the foreseeable future we may not find MH370 but that doesn’t rule out future endeavours.”
Asked what would constitute “credible new evidence” that would warrant a new search effort, Chester said: “It means ‘we’ll know it when we see it’.
“It’s not a closed book by any stretch … It’s reasonable to expect that more debris may be recovered in the weeks and months ahead, which may lead to further information to solve this puzzle.”